For the past decade, the technology industry has dominated almost all aspects of life.
While the tech world can be praised for dozens of achievements and landmarks, there’s one detail that not even household names like Google or Twitter can be proud of: the lack of diversity among employees. Ever since Google released its diversity report a few months ago, many tech companies have followed suit, with equally disappointing numbers.
As more of this data goes public, tech companies have started to acknowledge the shortcomings in terms of race and gender, but I’m still left wondering—how are they addressing issues related to economic class?
First-generation college students like myself are generally excluded from studies on diversity in the workforce, but their experiences are just as noteworthy and career-defining. Especially in an industry like technology — where networking and connections are so important — they may feel unprepared and less than welcomed into this tight-knit world.
But while I attended prestigious private schools for seven years that ultimately prepared me for my enrollment at Columbia University, my college access story was never an easy one.
I was raised by a single mother in a Mexican immigrant family, in a working-class neighborhood outside of Richmond, California — cited by the FBI among U.S. cities with high crime rates. My mom has been a mail carrier for over 20 years, and aside from an aunt who graduated from community college, higher education was not something I was exposed to from an early age or expected to pursue.
But when I skipped third grade at my public elementary school for being “gifted,” my mom realized that I really could have a future outside of manual labor and paycheck-to-paycheck living. She didn’t know what to do to alter my path, but thanks to advice from some customers on her mail route in the affluent Berkeley Hills neighborhood, she decided to transfer me to a private school.
Another side of town
Leaving my friends at my low-income public school to attend a wealthy private school was incredibly upsetting and challenging. I couldn’t ask family members for help on homework, since it was much more difficult than before and they didn’t have the time or education necessary to help me. But it was the social adjustment that weighed most heavily on me. I felt like I had nothing in common with these seemingly entitled rich kids — and the feeling was clearly mutual.
I was the first Mexican, Spanish-speaking student to attend Bentley School in its 85-year history, and even though it was only a 30-minute drive from my house (though it took me an hour to get there on two buses), it was a completely different world.
No one knew how to pronounce my name; no one knew where my hometown of San Pablo was; and I was constantly asked if I was undocumented. Eventually, I found my group of friends — made up of other students on financial aid — and I became more or less adjusted to my new environment.
I continued to adapt to this new world of education by attending the College Preparatory School, consistently ranked one of the best high schools in the country. The academics were demanding and the environment extremely competitive, but overall I excelled. By this point, I knew I would go to college, but as senior year loomed, it wasn’t applying to college that scared me so much as telling my family about it.
Except for my endlessly supportive mom, my family did not approve of my private school education and the love I was developing for learning. They thought it had distanced me from the people who cared most about me. When my mom was accepted to Cal State-East Bay after high school, a whopping 30 miles from home, my grandparents were offended that she would even consider going to a school so far away — she ended up attending the community college instead before leaving school to have me.
And when I was accepted to Columbia University, over 3,000 miles away from home, I didn’t feel the excitement and pride that any other high school student would feel at such an achievement.
I was accepted in December and didn’t tell my family until May out of fear at how they would react. And I was right: My grandparents didn’t speak to me for weeks because, in their eyes, I was betraying and abandoning the family. I was about to be the first person in my family to go to college, to one of the best universities in the world, on a full-ride scholarship — and I was overwhelmed with guilt and shame.
Being a first-generation college student is a huge accomplishment, but it can also be an emotional challenge. In addition to the general fear many students feel when going to college, first-gen students often deal with issues of self-doubt and assimilation.
It doesn’t surprise me at all that nearly 90% of first-generation college students leave school after six years without a degree, and that 25% don’t even make it past their first year. The student body can be alienating, the workload can be daunting and the stresses at home can force students to put their education on hold.
Because of my private school experiences, I arrived at Columbia well-prepared and with accurate expectations, but many of my friends with similar backgrounds have taken semesters off for academic, financial and psychological reasons. For first-generation college students like me, getting into college is hard, but staying in college is even harder.
Understanding life after college
As I prepare for my final year at Columbia, I’ve thought about how my experience as a first-generation college student will play out in the real world. Despite where I am now, I come home every summer to neighborhood lockdowns and unpaid bills.
I am constantly reminded of my upbringing, and I worry that it’s a lifestyle I won’t be able to escape. After all, if my mom hadn’t asked parents on her mail route for school recommendations, who knows where I would be now?
I’m currently interning at a tech startup and considering a career in this growing industry. But I know how many startups never take off, so I have to ask myself, “If my company fails, what will I do?” I can’t afford to take such a career risk.
In addition, since so many first-gen students are of color, I wouldn’t feel comfortable being part of an industry culture where, even at the highest level, only 5% of employees are black or Latino.
Luckily, NerdWallet, the personal finance company where I’ve been interning this summer, is one of the exceptions in Silicon Valley.
My coworkers are diverse in both race and gender: Over half of the employees are women. The company recognizes the undeniable correlation between personal finance and diversity. It provides various tools for people of color, same-sex couples and even first-generation college students.
The education team that I work with, NerdScholar, created a free FAFSA Guide that I wish I could’ve read in high school, and it recently hosted a financial literacy event for underprivileged high school students where I was able to share my college access experience.
Above all, my team has made an effort to hear my story and apply my experience to my work, a strategy that I believe would help other tech companies that aren’t sure how to maximize diversity. It’s this type of work environment that reassures me that I can succeed in the real world — and gives me hope for the future of the technology sector.
This article was originally published on USA Today College.